Toxic Safety of 1.3 Million Firefighters

Depends on new IAFF president and watchful eye of a cancer spouse

Ed Kelly

Ed Kelly

Part Ten

Facing a federal investigation into alleged mishandling of union pension funds and loss of credibility for failing to protect his members from the hidden chemical hazards in their turnout gear, Harold Schaitberger, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) general president for two decades, announced in September 2020 he would not be running for re-election.

Schaitberger, as reported in Part Four of this series, directed his union into an unholy alliance with the manufactuers of the turnout gear suspected of poisoning firefighters. He stonewalled Diane Cotter’s mission to protect his union membership from the toxic chemicals in their turnout gear.

New Light

His departure proclaimed a new day when the IAFF 2021 annual convention convened in January via video. Diane worked on “Resolution 28” with firefighters Jason Burns and Sean Mitchell from Local 1314 Fall River and Local 2509 Nantucket, respectively. The resolution called for cutting the financial corruption out of the union; it was submitted to the entire attending body for a vote.

“Resolution 28” gave voice to the memberships’ growing concerns over the presence of toxic poly and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in their personal protective equipment (PPE). These chemicals are linked to liver, kidney, prostate, and other cancers.

“Resolution 28” resolved “that the IAFF will no longer accept sponsorships from the chemical industry, textile manufacturers, or PPE manufacturers, unless that money is used to directly replace turnout gear made with toxic chemicals with alternatives which have been independently studied and deemed non-toxic, once those alternatives are available…”

Locals 765 Fort Lauderdale, 3080 Metro-Broward Professional Fire Fighters, and 1365, Orlando Professional Fire Fighters introduced a second proposed directive called “Resolution 31” that resolved, “the IAFF actively oppose the use of PFAS, in any amount, in the production of firefighting PPE… ”

Both passed with over 99 percent of the vote.

A Personal Cancer Experience

Diane and her husband Paul were beginning to see the ripples of what they hoped would be a tidal wave of change that they had worked for after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer while at the height of his professional career. She had a new ally too. Incoming IAFF president Ed Kelley had his own personal reasons for concern over the hidden hazards in firefighters’ turnout gear. Like altogether too many firefighter families, he also has experienced cancer in his own family. Kelly could totally relate to Diane's concerns, and he has also spoken movingly of children's cancer. He says he is aware that the rates of children's cancer among firefighters are higher than the population average, and this deeply troubles him, he told HealthyLivinG. Public health experts point to the firefighters' multiple chemical exposures that impact not only professionals themselves but the health of their offspring and note that a comprehensive protection plan for them involves reducing all of these exposures.

Because if it isn’t him and his family, he is acutely aware that it could be the child of any of his brothers and sisters who are part of the firefighter fraternity.

“I took a class about two months ago on early detection and cancer warnings, and a stat that they showed in that class was that 1.07 in 10,000 civilians have a child diagnosed with pediatric cancer... but 1 in 204 firefighters have a child diagnosed with pediatric cancer,” Kelly said in a video during the union’s general election that was addressed to US and Canada firefighters.

“That is a staggering statistic. That if I was to tell a new firefighter coming on the job—why they need to pay dues into this union—it’s because we need this brotherhood—this sisterhood—this Maltese cross—to stand up to the corporate interests in this country—in our two countries and around the world that are infusing our everyday life with these carcinogens. We need our collective might to be able to fight and stand up and have the political clout within the Parliament and the Congress to mount the defense with science—to build the science—to be successful on the regulatory boards and the standards committees to ensure we're doing everything in our power to protect each other. We certainly need to ensure that those of our members who are in their battles—and a good friend of mine just lost his battle that I worked with yesterday—and I know all of you have had great friends that they’ve lost to cancer in the fire service that you’ve worked with—we need to make sure that those of us that are fighting their battles—that they know we have their back... and the last thing that we need to do is to have any perception—that in any way—we have a conflict of interest between their health and safety and any corporate interest that are out there.”

“When I began my onslaught of Schaitberger and his gas lighting of firefighters, it was Ed who was the one to seek his own knowledge of this issue,” says Diane. “He engaged with the men and women who fight along with us for education, knowledge, and their expertise.

“During all of these years, I would keep in contact with Ed. He would strongly encourage me to keep fighting, to keep pushing for all of us. When I was more discouraged than I can say it was Ed who would reach out to me to keep seeking the truth. In 2019 when I wrote this letter to the IAFF executive board it was Ed Kelly and my longtime friend Ricky Walsh who would each reach out to me privately to tell me to keep fighting... that they see us, that no matter what we had to keep fighting for the truth to come out. No acknowledgment came from Harold Schaitberger, Pat Morrison, or any other member of the executive board.”

“Ed Kelly was the first executive board member to publicly state his fury when interviewed by Karen Hensel of 7 News Miami” over the issue of toxic turnout gear.

“Obviously, we are very upset,” Kelly told Hensel. “As a union, we’re going to fight like hell to make sure we have gear that protects us, not makes us sick.”

“When Ed announced his campaign promise, he was the first and only candidate to call out relationships with manufacturers… and promised a transparent review on Facebook and on his website within 90 days of his term,” Diane says.

The kids of firefighters aren't always okay, and neither are the firefighters themselves. A study of the children of firefighters in Kitsap County, Washington found a rate 27.4x higher than that of the general population of children.

“Why must firefighters’ kids suffer so many more cancers than other children just because their parents protect all of us?” says Diane.

But there appear to be new options being developed as a result of the unrelenting light being shined upon the toxicity of firefighter turnout gear. But to get this gear into the market is going to take a lot more legal, scientific, and consumer pressure and political leadership. That the new IAFF president has spoken of cancer among the firefighters and isn't afraid to point out the potential toxicity of their gear, and the union has broken free from the financial ties that corrupted the past leadership, may mean our heroes get what they deserve. They make the world safe for everyone. All they ask for is safe gear to do it in.

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